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Governor Rick Scott issues State of Emergency for toxic algae blooms

July 6, 2018
Jessica Salmond - News Editor ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

This story has been updated from a previous version published July 6. This is a developing story. More information will be added as it becomes available.

Following pressure from local legislators and a visit to Cape Coral, Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency Monday from the effects of the harmful blue green algae bloom.

Glades, Hendry, Lee, Martin Okeechobee, Palm Beach and St. Lucie Counties were included in the executive order.

Within the order, Scott calls out the federal government in a "failure to act with regards to Lake Okeechobee," saying he used his state authority to secure $100 million for the Herbert Hoover Dike and accelerated the reservoir project south of the lake.

In a letter Thursday signed by the Lee County Legislative Delegation, lawmakers asked Scott to declare a state of emergency because of the cyanobacteria blooms in the Caloosahatchee.

The letter was issued by State Representative Dane Eagle, and cc'd by Senators Lizbeth Benacquisto, Denise Grimsley, and Kathleen Passidomo, and Representatives Matt Caldwell, Heather Fitzhagen, and Ray Rodrigues.

Fact Box

Corps corks releases - temporarily

Sunday night, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced a halt of releases from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers.

Releases to St. Lucie were stopped June 30 for a 9-day period, but Sunday's announcement includes the Caloosahatchee, too.

The halt will "allow water managers to conduct a full assessment of system conditions," said a press release from the Corps.

Runoff accumulated from the rivers' watersheds will not be stopped.

"We acknowledge the continued interest in water releases from elected officials and the public which stem from limitations of the current water management system," said Col. Jason Kirk, Jacksonville District Commander. "We will continue to work with state officials and the South Florida Water Management District to implement all possible measures to create additional options. However, we will likely have to resume releases later in the week to reduce the flood risk that a rising lake presents to people living and working around it."

Kirk also said the pause would allow managers to use "all available flexibility before we resume discharges east and west."

The lake was at 14.42 feet Sunday. The Corps keeps the lake between 12.5 and 15.5 feet, but during wet season, prefers to stay lower rather than higher in case of a rain-producing storm or hurricane.

"As the blooms have grown and created a harsher threat to our tourism economy, small businesses, and the health of the environment and residents in Lee County, we ask you to issue a state of emergency for Lee County," the letter reads.

It goes on to list the areas being affected directly by the toxic blue-green algal blooms, as well as the barrier islands' tourism market. Eagle said a state of emergency could put into motion a state response to the blooms by identifying funds with state agencies that could respond.

"Additionally, we ask that you continue to request the water management districts explore and pursue all options that will reduce discharges, including storage north, east, west, and south of Lake Okeechobee," the letter concluded.

In 2016, Scott included Lee County on a list of counties in a state of emergency declared because of the cyanobacteria bloom that summer. At that time, Lee County was experiencing a fraction of the blooms that the East Coast was facing, and the inclusion on the list made the tourism industry in Lee take a big hit.

But this year, the harmful blooms are in the Caloosahatchee and going downstream - and the county needs action, said Jacki Liszak, president of the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce.

"It's coming our way this time," Liszak said. "Internally, you don't want to scare tourists, but you have to protect people."

The Chamber has taken a proactive approach by posting and updating water quality information to the Fort Myers Beach Conditions page on the website. Liszak said they also send out email blasts with updated from Lee Department of Health and refer people to report algae blooms and other heath issues that arise.

Liszak doesn't want anyone to be hurt by exposure to toxins in the water, but she said this year's blooms are going to hurt business.

"I'm highly concerned," she said. "I'm devastated over the pictures I'm seeing. I have friends that live along the Caloosahatchee, they're sending me photos of their back yards."

John Cassani, the Calusa Waterkeeper, posted a graphic from U.S. Geological Survey data on the Calusa Waterkeeper Facebook page that outlined the declining oxygen levels in the Caloosahatchee, saying the levels near the Franklin Locks were reaching "hypoxic" levels - meaning, fish kills could be happening. The page reported seeing some dead fish floating at the surface.

According to the July 3 Caloosahatchee and Estuary Condition Report sent out by the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), the cyanobacteria bloom now stretches 65 miles of the 75-mile river and estuary, from Moore Haven near the lake to the Cape Coral Bridge.

John Campbell, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said Lake Okeechobee was up to 14.33 feet Friday.

"Everything we discharged in June, we lost," he said. "It's a classic illustration of how quickly the water comes in versus our ability to let it out."

Until Monday, July 9, the Corps is currently releasing water into the Caloosahatchee in a "pulse" manner. The target goal is to release no more than 3,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) into the river, measured at the Franklin Lock. However the SCCF report said this week was recording 3,654 cfs. The Caloosahatchee also takes in water from its own watershed. However, Monday the Corps announced a temporary halt to releases to both rivers while the agency assessed the algae bloom.

A project on the southern end of the Central Everglades Planning Project was substantially completed last week. Campbell said the Corps is now able to raise the water level from 7.5 feet to 8 feet in the L-29 Canal, which runs from the lake to a Water Conservation Area near the Everglades. Just that half-foot increase gives the Corps another option for displacing water from the lake and sending it south, rather than to the St. Lucie or Caloosahatchee.

The SCCF report asked the Corps to utilize the canal outlet and not to exceed the cfs limit for the Caloosahatchee.

Liszak said she was encouraged to hear the legislative delegation is banding together to provoke action from Scott. While some projects aimed at sending water from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades, rather than the Caloosahatchee River, have been expedited, it's still years away from making a difference. And Southwest Florida needs relief now - the water needs to go south, she said.

"I think everyone's going to need to pull together," she said. "I'm glad they're doing something."



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